Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Pilgrims In Conflict

This is the Puritan identity. Pilgrims in conflict. The Puritans lived at all times with an overwhelming knowledge that this world was not their home. They were pilgrims on a journey to their heavenly dwelling. So they didn't expect to find comfort in this life. Instead, they expected to find conflict at every turn that required them to fight through it if they were to continue on their journey. Therefore, they knew that the end of conflict could only mean one of two things: either they had reached their destination having arrived in Heaven or they had ceased to fix their eyes on Jesus.

So why did the following statement that J.I. Packer made on the first day of class--as we began our tour of Puritan theology that will last two weeks--land on me with such sobering force to crush any hopes of sustained "comfort" in this life?
God has not promised to shield us from conflict in this life. He has promised to give us the strength to fight through it.
I think the reason that a statement like this lands on me with such impact is because it collides directly with the Christian identity that I have embraced, whether knowingly or unknowingly. So why is my identity as a follower of Jesus different from the Puritans' identity as followers of Jesus? Could it be that I have inherited a "Christian identity" that hasn't come from the Bible?
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
2 Timothy 4:7,8
In writing to his apprentice Timothy, this is how Paul sums up the life that he has lived. Looking back, he describes his life as a fight that he has had to battle through every step of the way such that he wouldn't have made it to the place he currently is had he ceased to fight at any point. Looking back, he describes his life as a race that he has had to continue running at all times despite injury and fatigue such that he wouldn't have made it to the place he currently is had he ceased to run at any point. Looking back, he describes his life as an active, vigilant, aggressive guarding of the faith at all times such that he wouldn't have made it to the place he currently is had he become passive at any point. Paul embodied the Puritan identity. He was a pilgrim in conflict, knowing that his life as a Christian was to fight. And he knew that there were only two possible scenarios in which he would no longer be fighting: either he had abandoned Christ or he had been brought home to his Savior.

And so it is of anyone who would call himself a Christian. One might say that the apostle Paul was called to live a life that not all believers are called to live. To that objection I respond with the words of Charles Spurgeon:
Do not tell me that the apostle was an exception, and cannot be set up as a rule or model for commoner folk, for I shall have to tell you that we must be such as Paul was if we hope to be where he is.
And if the prince of preachers isn't sufficient to calm our objections, then we must argue with the inspired apostle himself who instructs Timothy to do exactly what he has been doing.
Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called...
1 Timothy 6:12
Why does Timothy or anyone else who follows Jesus have to fight? Because this is what it means to have faith. It is the fight of the faith, Paul says. Where there is no fighting there is no faith. Why? Because the sovereign God has ordained, according to His infinite wisdom, that the only way we can take hold of eternal life is by fighting for it.

Do we feel the force of this yet? Let it sink in.

I don't know about you, but this is devastating to me. And I can't help but to wonder if these truths feel as devastating to a Christian living in a third world country as they do to me as a spoiled, privileged Christian living in plush, luxurious North America.

Everything in me that I've inherited from the society I have grown up in tells me to do whatever it takes so that I can get to a place where I don't have to fight. This is what the American idea of retirement is rooted in. Work hard to make lots of money when you are young so that as early as possible you won't have to work anymore. Especially as a black person, I can't help but hear the voices in my head saying to me that those who went before me fought so that I wouldn't have to. I can't help but hear the voices in my head of my parents saying to my sister, brother, and myself that they came to the United States and struggled to support themselves and make it through college and raise us so that the three of us wouldn't have to struggle.

And what's the result? This very moment I desire to have a set of life circumstances that, were God to grant them to me, would eliminate any need to fight. It would be a life of everything I ever wanted filled with comfort and ease. And you know what? There is nothing wrong with desiring that as long as one thing is clear: Not in this life. That is reserved for heaven and heaven only.

Recently a good friend of mine asked me the question: "Are you happy?" I paused for a few moments because I didn't know how to answer the question. Upon further reflection, I realized that if this is the question we are constantly asking ourselves in this life then there is no way we can live the Christian life the way it is meant to be lived. Don't get me wrong. I'm a Christian hedonist! I believe that we are to make it our chief aim in this life to be happy... in God! That's why I responded to my friend by saying that I was happy but I have to fight every day for that happiness. It doesn't just come to me when I wake up in the morning. I must do battle in my soul each day from one hour to the next to keep myself happy in God rather than letting my heart drift towards satisfaction in other things, even seemingly harmless. That's why the question "Are you happy?" feels like the wrong question to ask. Because it makes happiness seem like it is dependent on having a certain set of life circumstances. If the circumstances are right, I'm happy. If not, I'm unhappy. The better question to ask is: "Are you fighting the fight of faith?" Because if we are doing this properly, then happiness is a necessary consequence.

From my understanding of the Bible, happiness doesn't depend on circumstances. It depends on whether I'm fighting or not. And in this, it rises above circumstances.

The Puritans understood that we were created to have perfect communion with God, to honor Him, worship Him, and enjoy Him with the fullness of our entire beings consisting mainly of our minds, wills, and affections. But because of the Fall, that perfect communion was destroyed and our minds, wills, and affections are inclined to other things. We naturally don't want communion with God. We would rather commune with another human being or ourselves than with God. We would rather enjoy sleep or a meal than enjoy God. Our minds conclude that television or work or academic pursuits are better objects of our wills than God. But through Jesus Christ's incarnation and death, we can be restored to our original purpose, perfect communion with God. And so we fight by the grace that He alone supplies through the Holy Spirit to set our minds, wills, and affections on God instead of other things--day by day, hour by hour. This is the fight we are in: to become more and more like Jesus who honored, worshipped, and enjoyed His Father with the entirety of His mind, will, and affections. And this is the fight that we will be in until Jesus comes or calls.

This is why John Owen, the man considered to be the greatest Puritan theologian, wrote the following in a letter to a friend:
Strive to love Christ more, to abide more with him, and to be less in our selves: He is our best friend and [before] long will be our only friend. I pray God with all my heart that I may be weary of every thing else but converse and communion with him.
If we don't strive to love Christ more, to abide more with him, fighting everything in us that hinders our communion with Him, why in the world would we love his appearing that Paul speaks of in 2 Timothy 4:8? John Owen, as well as the rest of the Puritans, were people who could love Christ's appearing because they knew that His appearing marked the end of their fight with sin, their fight against everything that blocked them from perfect communion with Christ because when He appeared they would be brought into that perfect communion.

And so Owen, when he had come to the day of his death, said:
The long-looked for day is come at last, in which I shall see that glory in another manner than I have ever done yet, or was capable of doing in this world!
Will we be able to say that on the day we die? Is seeing Jesus face to face the "long-looked for day" for us as it was for Owen? Is the longing of our hearts (and the evangelical Church at large) that Christ would appear, so that we will no longer have to fight sin but instead be able to worship and enjoy Him perfectly with our minds, wills, and affections for all of eternity? Is that what we see in the behavior of the Church today? Or do we long more for something else that we wish to enjoy in this life? Health? Better looking bodies? More money? Husband? Wife? Children?

The reward that Christ has to give Paul on that Day is only for those who love His appearing. We will only love His appearing if it brings us to the end that we have been striving towards. We will never love His appearing if we are not fighting. And if this is the case then, as Spurgeon said, we will never be where Paul is wearing the crown he is wearing.

So we must never look for the day in this life when we will no longer have to fight. Instead, we must shift from fighting against God's sovereign wisdom to fighting against our wretched sin: our unbelief, our mistrust of the infinitely faithful One!

Oh what precious friends the Puritans are! Let us follow them as our guides and embrace their identity as pilgrims in conflict who fight all of our days, knowing that "we are strangers and exiles on the earth" and living as though we "desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one" (Hebrews 11:13,16).
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Romans 7:24,25
Father, thank You for the Puritans as examples of those who went before us and died in faith. Forgive us for the way that we have misunderstood what it means to be Your people. Have mercy on us for the ways that we love other things more than we love Your Son's coming. I thank You that You don't give me a life consisting of my ideal circumstances because if You were to do so it would be my undoing. I would be destroyed because I would be too busy having a good time to see the horror of my sin so as to make every effort to mortify it. But I thank You that You give me discomfort so that I might know that all is not well and so become aware of the treason I commit against You daily. Grant me a greater knowledge of my sin. Grant me a greater hatred of it. Remove every inclination in me that moves away from fighting and in its place grant an unshakable resolution that I would fight each day to kill my sin and enter into richer communion with You. Sanctify me each day by Your Holy Spirit so that as I grow in holiness, I would grow in hatred of even the least remnants of my sin, and thus grow in my love for Your Son's appearing because He will do away with every last iota of sin within me. Thank You that that Day will come when we will be delivered from this body of death! May it come quickly so that You will be perfectly glorified in me by making me to be perfectly satisfied in You alone. In Jesus' precious name, Amen.

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